Motor Racing: Natural talent driven by the lust for speed: Keith Botsford mourns the most dedicated grand prix driver

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THE DEATH of Ayrton Senna is an incalculable blow to motor racing. It isn't just that he was the 'greatest' driver - many could lay claim to that title, all for different reasons, from Jim Clark through Ronnie Peterson, Niki Lauda and, yes, Alain Prost - but that he was certainly one of the greatest and indisputably the most modern.

It is also a deep human loss, for Ayrton was also - for all his fierce, unyielding temperament, his passionate commitment - one of the nicest and most intelligent of the modern breed, and one of the most lateral. For all his single-mindedness, what made his greatness and gave him his edge even over Prost was his ability to think about not just himself and a given stretch of a race- track, but also about his own vulnerability, his problematic nature, about life and books, about his native Brazil, about the world in general.

Most drivers, I concluded after 13 years covering the sport, had very large egos with little to sustain those egos. They were people who did one thing exceedingly well, but apart from that one thing there wasn't much to them. Indeed, they were profoundly ignorant of everything save for the rude, mechanical skill required to drive a car, the native cunning needed to survive in a rigid, commercial world, and the athleticism and quickness of eye and reaction with which they were born.

Senna was not at all like that. He had all their skills, and in abundance: no one was quicker and more calculating, few knew as much as he did about the most intimate twitches of racing-cars, rare was the man as dedicated, in all his waking hours (and as he once remarked, in his dreams as well) to the sport. But in addition, he had a vital arrogance, a sense of his own worth - if it did not sound pretentious, I would say an 'artistic' awareness of his own value - that no one came close to. He and Jim Clark shared that gift, for under the word 'natural', which we apply to the greatest drivers, was included superior instinct, self-confidence and, above all, knowingness.

I don't think anyone studied the sport and its history in such intimate and persistent detail. Driving wasn't the only thing Ayrton wanted to do in life, but it was the only thing he wanted to do in the now, and the now counted greatly for him. He had a privileged life and dedicated it, with the utmost modesty (the reverse of which was, of course, his enormous arrogance) to mastering the sport from the bottom up: from karts to Formula One. In so doing he pushed himself to the limits.

To that natural ability, Senna, like Prost, added an enormous engineering technique: a knowledge of that complex (and fallible, as we now know) machine, the modern racing car. To know a car as Ayrton knew a car is to be like a jockey who has learnt every idiosyncrasy of his thoroughbred: what it means when an ear twitches, the head droops, or the gait alters, however slightly. It implies living with a force that has a mind of its own. Only Senna had an intelligence cold enough (not for nothing did Brazilians consider him muito frio) to cope with a car's galloping development. Progress, too, was an element of speed.

And it is that sheer speed, and his delight in it and in the risk involved, that distinguished Ayrton from his contemporaries. In that he most closely resembled Jochen Mass and Peterson, two throwbacks who enjoyed doing a whole circuit sans brakes.

His was a spirit for the times, and he could see no end to faster and faster. Save as he said to me nearly a decade ago, that, 'One day I'll make a mistake. Everyone does.'